[posted 06.19.2001]


IT’S 7:40 P.M., FRIDAY NIGHT. While most people are standing in line at movie theaters, finishing dinner or otherwise easing the week’s cumulative workload, I’m hunched over a problematic Macintosh in a preternaturally urgent office, fielding requests such as the following from people in distant catacombs of my suite:

“Can you find a quote of Dominic saying he’s a sex addict? It doesn’t matter from which city.”

“Is there a shot in Atlanta of Beastie laughing?”

“We need a line from Amanda, in present tense, about her boy bitches.”

And I’m off to the races, the sought-after prize no simpler an aim than good TV.

We “online” in an hour. I don’t know exactly what that means — I’ve never been able to get a straight answer from the post department — but I know it’s a stressful process resulting in the show being immutable and ready to air. All I know is that I need to cover the bases before then in case a quote or shot doesn’t edit well.

For a few minutes, this mission is of tantamount importance — a story line has been chosen, and until I find this bite, it’s missing a page. By next Monday, the show will have aired, and I’ll have witnessed the fruits of my work in a way few people can: on national — albeit cable — television.

I work as a junior story editor on VH-1’s reality series Bands on the Run, and we’re most of the way through our first season right now. I got the job on Bands mostly because I busted my ass as a full-fledged story editor on _Sound Affects, a VH-1 series that interviewed people about how their lives were influenced or changed by music. _Since Bands is VH-1’s first major reality program in the traditional Real World mold, there weren’t a lot of people in the usual VH-1 talent pool with previous reality TV experience when work on the show began. If there had been, I admit, I might not have received the opportunity.

A kind of Road Rules with bands, Bands on the Run sends four competing groups out together to tour the U.S., the band that sells the most tickets and merchandise will receive $50,000 cash, $100,000 in free equipment and a music video. The competitors are painstakingly recorded twenty-four/seven for over two months.

As a junior story editor, I don’t have a lot of input in the content of the shows. I mainly help the story editors find and evaluate material for the scripts. With little creative resources and so much potential material, what a reality TV story editor needs above all else is an excellent memory. If you have knowledge of the show at your fingertips, you can build or repair a scene faster, get the show in an editing bay quicker and expedite the notes process.

When I am asked questions like those above, it behooves me to know off the top of my head if such bites or shots even exist, and if they do, where they are and of what quality they are. If, when asked to find a shot of Sutton locked out of his hotel room, I can make a beeline for the 4:23 AM-5:25 AM Friday Novemeber 11th tape without any database searches, I’m the king, baby.

Sometimes, when we need a bite, we feel like just calling up one of the bands and getting it. This we don’t do. I’ve met the bands, but I never talk to them. When I first met them at a private party, I had already seen a month of their lives on tape. I knew so much about them — it was like meeting a pen pal to whom you had never responded. Before the show had even aired, they were celebrities in my eyes. Whether they would be celebrities in anyone else’s, I suppose, was and is partially up to me.


As I look around this extensive suite, it’s disconcerting to realize that nobody was doing this reality TV thing ten years ago. Now, hundreds of people make a solid, consistent living in the format (an idea that was laughable until about a year ago). Yes, we who are among those hundreds owe much to the success of Survivor, but, to be fair, economics has as much to do with the runaway success of the format as does Hollywood’s copycat impulse.

A reality show is comparatively cheap to produce — and not just because the above-the-line cost is so low. Audiences seem more forgiving of scattershot, fly-by-night production values in the reality format; in fact, the shaky cameras and grainy video seem to lend an air of authenticity. When your “A” camera is a hand-held DV cam from Best Buy, the cost of a whole crew of grips and electricians can go out the window.

For the 22-year old film school grad with no relatives in the biz, the genre offers the most realistic chance at a paying field production job. And production managers in Hollywood are now seeing “reality TV” resumés — work histories almost exclusively devoted to reality TV experience. But are these grads backing themselves into a corner by only working on reality shows? Will they find their experience inconsequential when, or if, the nation’s fixation with reality programming ends?

No. Reality TV people will be fine.

Even if the format is shoved out of prime time (and that won’t happen anytime soon), the digital camera is here to stay. A product that cost-effective, easy to use and adaptable to new post-production methods is a no-brainer for any show or film looking to contain production costs. In fact, for now the DV cam is our last weapon against the defection of production work to Canada; it’s helping to contain costs and keep jobs here. In short, the popular acceptance of reality shows couldn’t have come at a better time — this reality TV phenomenon could result in the last great surge of domestic film and TV field production.

I imagine, though, that working in reality TV will be a comedown from working in film for a lot of these grads. There are a thousand differences between the two forms — it’s like comparing applesauce with investment banking. When you make a film, you get to create new worlds. You accept the challenge of inventing characters toward which an audience will be sympathetic. You get to be more tacit, to use imagination in a multitude of ways. Reality TV, in my experience, is more visceral in its intent.

Adam Sternberg pontificated on the format in a recent episode of the radio show This American Life: Rather than producing tears or shouts of joy, he said, it is the “cringe” that reality TV producers aim to elicit from their audiences. I suppose it’s the age-old entertainment paradigm of telling a story by putting normal people into extraordinary situations…and as long as people find that mode amusing — and reality TV producers refrain from too obviously underestimating their audience — I imagine that reality TV will survive in some form or other.


We’re just past the point when most reality TV staffers, like myself, were new to the genre.The Real World‘s crew certainly evolved over ten years, but the show didn’t crank out enough vets to supply the world with reality know-how.Bands on the Run was fortunate in that regard: People came to us from Temptation Island and Road Rules, among other shows. And while Bands completed production many members of the outgoing staff moved on to other reality shows at ABC, MTV and VH-1. In six months, there will probably be no excuse to hire as a reality show story editor someone who’s never worked in the format before.

And that’s an important distinction. To use a management-speak phrase I recently heard being copiously abused in an airport terminal, reality TV story editors need a different “skill set” than those who write for sitcoms or dramas. As constricting as those formats are, they always have the option of making something out of nothing. But everything that we put together to make a narrative has already happened. We may need a shot of someone entering a bar or introducing himself in order to make everything fit together — and if it didn’t happen, we may have to scrap the story line altogether. [That said, Mark Burnett’s admittance that Survivor re-shot some pick-up scenes is, to my way of thinking, not only acceptable but advisable. God, I’d love the chance to do some of that for this show…but it’s hard to find places in LA that look like Pittsburgh or Columbus, Ohio.]

Tonight, once again, I sit at my desk late on a Friday night, looking at a stack of videos on top of my monitor that contain actual moments from these persons’ actual lives — random days, all out of sequence. Sometimes I think of the wild show we could make if we just damned ethics and continuity to hell and logjammed disparate moments from two months together into a cracked revision of history. Don’t think it happens, though. Most of the time just trying to make sense of the way things happened in order is enough.

As a person who does a lot of writing in his spare time, I find this reality experience, both on Bands and on Sound Affects, to be very useful. Both jobs have improved my sense of storytelling logic and flow. Ultimately, I’d like to create new worlds, but this experience has been very helpful in understanding the construction — and reconstruction — of those that already exist.

Antoine De Saint-Exupery once said, “You know you’ve achieved perfection in design, not when you have nothing more to add, but when you have nothing more to take away.” And, when you whittle the events of three days into an hour — and ten solid weeks into a television season — day in and day out, perhaps it’s easier to look at the daily TV schedule and see this reductionist tendency ultimately manifest in networks making fewer shows with actors and writers. Why make the present, when you can just simplify and reconstruct the past at a greatly reduced cost?

Reality TV is here to stay. Get in while you still can. If you know in which city Fletcher got lost trying to find a party and can find the moment where he calls for directions, get over here and help. I know it will make good television.

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j. ryan stradal lives in los angeles, makes money working for tv and makes zilch writing for himself in his free time. he likes computers and hot tamales.